Avalanche warning issued in Utah as winter storms bring heavy snow

A combination of Friday’s wind and storm could overload “really, really light snowpack.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Backcountry riders pass an avalanche warning sign in Grizzly Gulch in Alta on Wednesday, November 9, 2022 amid heavy pre-season snowfall on the Wasatch front.

While they’ve been a boon to Utah’s ski resorts, the big storms and cold temperatures the mountains have been experiencing lately could spell a major bust upstate.

The Utah Avalanche Center issued an avalanche warning for the Bear River, Wasatch and Uinta mountain ranges Thursday afternoon through 6 a.m. Saturday in anticipation of the latest upcoming storm, which is expected to bring up to a foot of snow there between Thursday night and Friday morning.

It’s the first in a series of avalanche warnings over the next few weeks as more snowfall and wind continue to take their toll on what UAC director Mark Staples described as “a really, really light snowpack.”

“We’ll see more avalanches,” Staples said, “before it gets better.”

The light snowpack is due to a few warm days with clear skies over the past week, which changed the structure of the snow and gave it a sugar-like consistency.

Winds on Thursday, which hit more than 110mph and caused Brighton and Alta ski resorts to close for the afternoon, further eroded snowpack. This weakened snowpack is then asked to support the weight of the fast but violent nighttime storm.

In recent days, UAC has seen several small avalanches as well as other warning signs, Staples said.

“What worries us might not be the big, dramatic avalanche trails that experienced skiers go down,” he said, “but the smaller, little steep slopes somewhere along a trail, more like for snowshoeing, [where someone] doesn’t usually expect to be able to handle this situation.”

UAC advises backcountry travelers to steer clear of slopes steeper than 30 degrees and avoid driving below slopes of that grade. It is also recommended that each person in a group going backcountry wears avalanche rescue gear and knows how to use it.

[Read more: See video of skier getting trapped in a Utah avalanche before friends dug him out]

For those interested in learning more about avalanche safety, next week the UAC will be conducting lectures, classes and presentations as part of its fourth annual Avalanche Awareness Week. The launch event will be held Monday at 4:30 p.m. at Sugar House Park and will feature free beacon training, rescue dogs and information on how to be safe in the mountains.

Though UAC’s warning lasts through 6 a.m. Saturday, Staples expects the center to issue another warning for Sunday and Monday’s storm forecast.

In the short term, the upcoming storms will increase the risk of avalanches. In the long term, however, they could be just what is needed to stabilize snowpack. As more snow accumulates at the top, it insulates and solidifies the snow below.

“Dangerous conditions early in the season are not uncommon in the Wasatch Mountains,” he said. “And then that’s the light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak. [Because] We can get some really consistent big storms, and when we get those, things can turn around. We can have great fun deep conditions that are a lot safer.”

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